November 21, 2011


Not the BEST way to debate climate: A study prompted by 'Climategate' has been held up as proof that sceptics are wrong. The truth is far murkier. (Ben Pile, 11/21/11, spiked)

So what does the BEST study really reveal according to sceptics, and how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that BEST 'doesn't really change anything'. For Montford, Climategate simply revealed a group of people 'just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they're not doing much' and who have 'commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps'. There is, in fact, little dispute about the temperature changes over the past few decades.

BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.

Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of 'scientists versus deniers', in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists' attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to commentators. Taking a stand to 'save the planet' elevates journalists who, without the narrative of possible climate disaster, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity and define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.

However, vapid journalism - 'churnalism' - is not the whole story. The controversy generated by the treatment of BEST's result speaks volumes about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn't seem able to supply clarity to the debate - in spite of the science - it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. In this case, science, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.

Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the climate-change summit in Copenhagen to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol, revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science is, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data or show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change, such as the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, were found to be groundless.

This would have all been without consequence had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue, with 'transparency'. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been published, BEST became a peg on to which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST came to 'vindicate climate science', exonerate climate scientists and force 'sceptics' to concede that the Earth had warmed. 

Posted by at November 21, 2011 6:23 AM

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